Sunday, June 18, 2017

One Night Only, Logroño!

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 9

The drive from San Sebastian to the Navarre area was easy and scenic. Just south and inland, Navarre, a Basque region but not Basque Country, is best known for its capital city of Pamplona.

We stopped after 1 1/2 hours in the small town of Olite which is the home of the Palace of Kings.
From what I could tell, the entire town is basically just an extension of the castle. We didn't go inside but we had a lovely stroll around it and then sat in the practically deserted town square for a drink. I can't imagine staying in Olite for more than one night, but it was a very pretty and worthwhile stop!

Another 30 minutes south we reached out lunch destination, the vegetable-driven restaurant Elcrucero in the town of Corella.

Our multi-coursed lunch was paired with wines from the Navarra winery Aliaga. Although the restaurant is known for its delicious vegetable dishes (the cardoon with pomegranate was especially great) the roasted goat we had as our main was absolutely succulent!
It was getting late when we loaded back into our van after lunch and as we drove into the Rioja region we experienced one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever witnessed.  Antonio pulled over so we could watch it go from orange to red to pink to purple!
Just to the west of Logroño, we stopped in San Asensio to visit Bodegas Lecea. We had a great time tasting the wines and had a very interesting tour of their cellars. 
It was a quick 30-minute ride back to Lograño where we checked into the Sercotel Portales. This was a good if basic hotel but we were only staying one night so it was more than fine. 

We barely dropped our bags before it was time to meet up with some of Gerry and John's local friends who would be taking us out for the evening; Tonica and Tom. 

It was Friday night and we were heading out for the ultimate pinchos (what this region calls tapas) crawl on and around Calle Laurel. I had not never been here before but my brother spent some time here and from the photos of food he had sent me I knew it was going to be great!
It seemed like EVERYONE was out, and it felt like a big happy party! Basically the streets are lined with mainly small restaurants, each with their own specialty. You order that, a glass of wine, beer, or sidre, and you stand in the streets eating and drinking. 

Our first stop was Bar Soriano for the fabulous grilled mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, and shrimp. We were off to a good start!
Next were "matrimonios" at Blanco y Negro; anchovy and fried green peppers in a sandwich. Surprisingly good! 
Next door at Bar Cid we had more mushrooms, this time big oyster mushrooms hot off the grill!

Meson Abuelo was next and although we had some very good lamb sweetbreads this restaurant was a bit too large, too bright, and too new for me. 

Along with all of this amazing food, the people watching was top notch!

At this point some people wanted to go for a sit down dinner while others wanted to continue the crawl (me!). So we split up and I headed off with Tonica, Beth, Anne, and George for Tonica's favorite pincho, grilled pineapple and prawn. Holy hell, this was my best bite of the night! 
And unfortunately the only place I didn't write down!

We wrapped our crawl up at the very modern Umm with a delicious gazpacho. They've got the name right here! 

On the way home, Tonica was nice enough to show us around a bit, it's really a lovely town and I'd love to stay longer next time! It was well past midnight when we got back to the hotel and the streets were quiet again.

Day 10

The next morning we drove past the walled town of Laguardia but the fog was so incredibly thick that we couldn't even see it!

From here we stopped at the Marqués de Riscal, not to try the wine but to take a look at the Gehry-designed hotel. I had toured this winery when they were actually building the hotel and had been shown the small architectural model, it was awesome to see it finished!

We left the Rioja region and had a 4-hour drive to our final destination of Madrid. I have to say that the visit to Logroño was really one of the highlights of this trip. My question; when can I go back? I gotta find the spot that sells those pineapple and prawn skewers!

All photos from Navarre and Rioja here

Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias
Beef and Basque


Seafood All Around San Sebastian


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Baltic Road Trip

Trip date: December 2016

We were leaving Vilnius, heading towards our New Year's Eve destination of Riga, Latvia. With no trains between the two cities we decided to risk the weather and drive. For the most part the roads were good and we all enjoyed the road trip.

Wanting to take advantage of the car we decided to do a little sightseeing along the way. Our first stop, an hour and 30 minutes outside of Vilnius, was the interesting Bistrampolis Manor in the tiny village of Kuciai. The plantation style building was built in 1850 and is now a hotel, restaurant, and conference center. But the history of the land and original buildings goes back 500 years. 

We were definitely in rural Lithuania as we drove 5 miles on a dirt road past nothing but fields to get there. We had a good lunch in the restaurant and as it was really cold, didn't spend a lot of time walking around the grounds, but they were very pretty. 

From here we had another hour and 30-minute drive to the Hill of Crosses. Situated in the middle of nowhere in northern Lithuania, this has been a site of pilgrimage since the mid-1800s. 
Approaching the hill is so strange as there are over 100,000 crosses! There are paths around and through the crosses, in some sections hundreds had toppled over (a cross-slide?) and the paths were blocked. 


There are crosses of all sizes, and many made of non-traditional materials like airplane propellers. Some are basic and others are quite artistic. There are very, very old ones and others brand new. If you didn't carry one on your pilgrimage you can buy one in the gift shop or parking lot. 

It's quite a sight!

Back in the car, we drove another hour and a half, crossing into Latvia, on route to Rundale Palace. As we crossed the boarder we noticed that most houses had one or more of the trees in their yard decorated for Christmas. It is said that the tradition of Christmas trees started in Latvia in 1510!
Unfortunately, we arrived just as the palace was closing for the night. We walked around the exterior a bit but weren't able to see much. I was disappointed not to get a chance to explore but it's not my first time being locked out of a palace; there was this one time in Russia...

We had another hour and a half drive before reaching Riga. The road was fine but it was very dark with no streetlights and a two-lane highway for most of the time. 

When we arrived in the city we were all just about speechless! Riga, modern on one side of the river, with an incredible old town on the other, and stunning bridges spanning the two sections, was absolutely beautiful!!
We couldn't wait to see it in the daylight!


All Lithuania photos are here and Latvia photos are here.
You can also find photos of our trip on Instagram using the hashtag #BalticBash2016

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Christmas in Beaujolais
Baltic Bash Kick Off
Out and About in Lithuania
A Very Baltic New Year
Latvian Eats & Drinks

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Out and About in Lithuania

Trip date: December 2016

On our 2nd full day in Lithuania, we picked up our rental car and drove to Trakai Castle. When we left Vilnius it was cold and sunny, which quickly turned to cloudy and snowing. After just a short drive we arrived in the town and walked across the bridge to the castle which sits in the center of the lake; snow falling all around us. When people ask why I travel to these cold-weather destinations in the winter, this is why. It was fantastic!

We spent a few hours going through the palace, towers, casemate, and courtyard. The rooms were filled with a lot of interesting displays of silver, original coins, weaponry, traditional dress, stained glass, and a great photo exhibit of the restoration of the castle.

At one point the four of us were the only ones in the castle's ballroom. That doesn't happen in the summer!

One of the more unique exhibits was a very large collection of smoking pipes in a variety of sizes from as small as a thimble to large water pipes.

When we were done, we walked back across the bridge to the small town and had lunch at Bona Pizzeria. Although you might be able to get pizza here, we chose it because they are known for their traditional Karaite pastries which are similar to empanadas.

A great view of the castle, delicious chicken broth loaded with dill, and a pastry filled with lamb made for a great lunch. Forest's soup came with a roll of bread that was as black as lava! Go here if you're in Trakai!

When we got back to Vilnius Thibault led us on a walking tour around Old Town. We passed so many churches it was almost absurd! I read later that there are 28 churches in the old town; 21 are Roman Catholic, four are Russian Orthodox, and one each of Lutheran, Reformed and Eastern Rite Catholic.

Six of the Catholic churches, such as this beautiful pink one, still haven't reopened since the Soviet occupation.

Some of the churches are almost stacked on top of each other as the old town is only 3.5 square kilometers.

There wasn't time to go into them all but we did duck into a few. This being just after Christmas, one even had a live manger in the entrance!

We ended our tour in the Uzupis Republic. A self designated independent republic, this little neighborhood is filled with artists and cool hangouts. We squeezed into Spunka for beers, a very fun place with lots of locals and more beer choices than I knew what to do with.

We made our way back over the river towards where we were having dinner and stopped into Notre Vie as we had read it was a good wine bar. When we started chatting with the bartender he sold us on his cocktail making skills so we changed our orders only to end up with Negronis made with Sprite. No worries, they were super friendly and happy to have us.

Dinner was right next door at Lokys. The restaurant has various rooms, most looking a bit medieval, ours unfortunately resembled the inside of a business hotel from 1978. But the meal was fantastic! We had sausages made from beaver, venison, and wild boar, local cheeses, a delicious cold beet soup, meatballs, etc. I'd absolutely recommend Lokys for dinner!

Our uber home cost 3 Euro! Caitlin, Forest, and I had nightcaps and some musical sing-alongs before turning in.

On our last day in Vilnius Thibault, Forest, and Caitlin took the car and headed out of town to the open-air sculpture garden, Europos. They showed me lots of awesome photos, and all of them really enjoyed it, so I'd say if you have time and a car that would be a good day trip. I decided to stay and see more of the old town.

I loved my day exploring the twisty cobblestone streets of Vilnius. As I was walking towards one of the old gates of the city, I happened upon the main market which was very busy. Pork seemed to be the main attraction featured both in raw cuts and various cured sausages, and there were lots of interesting spices, vegetables, assorted clothing and household items.

Right outside of the market I spotted a small group of locals selling their own homemade items, no tables needed for them!

At the very south end of the city is the Gate of Dawn. Above the gate is the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. The icon of the Virgin Mary here is said to have special powers and as I sat for a moment, observing people in prayer while watching pedestrians in the streets below, I could see how special of a place it is for them. As I walked up the stairs to the chapel I even witnessed one woman who climbed up on her knees in an act of veneration.

Old Town Vilnius is gorgeous, it reminded me a bit of Bratislava with the pastel colored buildings and narrow pedestrian only streets. But nowhere have I seen this number of beautiful churches.

It was lunchtime so I made my way to Gabi, which was recommended to me by some friends, for traditional zeppelins; potato dumplings filled with meat and topped with bacon and sour cream. I wish I had a chance to try zeppelins at more than one place as these had a strange texture which I didn't really enjoy. I'm not sure if that is how they are normally or just here.

It was a clear and sunny day and I returned back to Cathedral Square in the hopes of taking the funicular up to the castle tower for sunset. Unfortunately it was closed as there had been a landslide, so I opted to climb up the bell tower instead. The views of the city were just beautiful from here!
When you climb the tower you are on your own and can go all the way up into the rafters. They warn you that you will be right next to the bells so you aren't shellshocked when they ring!

From here I walked to the Genocide Museum which is housed in the old KGB offices. Wow, what a unique museum! The main exhibit focuses on the effects of WWII on Lithuania and includes a lot of information on the Secret Service and Soviet powers.

In the basement of the building are the old KGB prison cells. You self-guide yourself from the entrance where they processed people, holding them in claustrophobia inducing tiny dark closets, to small cells where 4 to 8 men would have been held.

There are a few different isolation cells and a torture cell where the prisoner was forced to stand on the small raised circle platform or they would fall into ice water.

You pass through the exercise yard, where neighbors have a view into, on the way to the execution chamber, complete with bullet-riddled wall. A single shot to the back of the skull was the preferred method at the time.

Grim yes, but historical and interesting for sure. This museum was unlike anything I'd been in before and I'd recommend it without a doubt.

We all regrouped back at the apartment and shared our stories of the day over aperos and baked Mont d'Or cheese we had purchased in Beaujolais.

It was our last night so Forest, Thibault and I headed out for a little cocktail crawl. First up was King & Mouse Whiskey Bar. They are very proud of their whiskey selection here, and I have to say for being in a small town in the Baltics I was impressed too. I had a nice flight made up of whiskies from Japan, Taiwan, and India.

The bartender told us about another bar called Apoteka so we called an Uber and made our way there. This super cute, subterranean feeling bar is all about craft cocktails and we loved it. Especially charming was when we ordered round two of martinis and the bartender found the bottle of vermouth to be empty! Vilnius doesn't have a bottle store on every corner so we were almost out of luck, happily he found a backup!

I really loved Vilnius, much more than I had expected to! It is small and quaint and pretty; interesting architecture and a nice mix of new and old. Less medieval than Tallinn, Estonia and impressive in its number of churches for sure!

We were saying sudie to Vilnius and driving to Latvia in the morning, which I was very excited about as well!

All Lithuania photos are here, you can also find photos of our trip on Instagram using the hashtag #BalticBash2016

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Christmas in Beaujolais
Baltic Bash Kick Off
A Very Baltic New Year